Friday, July 28, 2017

Damn, Girl-Chevaliere d'Eon de Beaumont

The Chevaliere*, or Chevalier, depending on who you ask, d'Eon was one of the most colorful figures of the 18th century. Assigned male at birth, and named Charles Genieveve Louisa Auguste Andre Timothee de Beaumont, the Chevaliere is notable for her service in the french military, for being a spy, and for coming out as a female, and living as Lia de Beaumont in the latter part of her life. She was a free mason, a champion fencer, a lawyer, a decorated war hero, and a celebrated author.

Image result for Chevalier d'eonIt was 1755 and, no surprise, the French were scheming. Relations with England were growing uneasy, and King Louis was attempting to put his cousin on the Polish throne. The Russian Empress, Elizabeth, refused to meet with any French ambassadors, and the French government was actively working against itself. It was this environment that the Chevaliere first got her start.

The Chevaliere was sent with the French diplomatic mission to Russia under the guise of a lowly secretary. The truth of her mission, however, was much more complex than that. d'Eon was there as part of le Secret du Roi--Louis' secret spy agency that was so secret, most of the French government didn't know about it. At the time of the Chevaliere's service, the group was dedicated to helping Louis put his cousin on the Polish throne, essentially giving France control of Poland. d'Eon's mission was to get the good will of Empress Elizabeth. There was just one problem, the Empress refused to see any of the French diplomats.

So the Chevaliere and the people back in Versailles put their heads together, and came up with a brilliant idea. d'Eon would be disguised as a woman, and infiltrate the court of the Empress that way. The idea was that Empress Elizabeth would be more open to speaking with a female French diplomat. They were absolutely right.

Seven years later the Seven Years War is going poorly for France. d'Eon left Russia to serve as a dragoon in the French army. She was the Secretary to the French ambassador, and she must have been very helpful at the peace talks between France and Britain, because she was later awarded the honor of the Order of St. Louis, which, I have been told, is a big deal.

After being decorated, d'Eon was sent to London to assist the current French ambassador to England, the Comte de Guerchy. Unfortunately, the pair did not get on. d'Eon's overspending, and her insubordination made her a liability, and she was recalled by the French government in 1763.

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Had the Chevaliere returned to France as ordered, she most likely would have been thrown in the Bastile or worse. That was an unattractive option for d'Eon, so she decided to blackmail the French government. d'Eon was still a member of le Secret du Roi, and was in possession of certain sensitive information. Since the end of the Seven Years War the French had given up their ambitions in Poland, and were working towards an invasion of England. The Chevaliere threatened to expose the duplicity of the French government if they didn't assign her a pension, and let her live in peace.

The French government was, understandably, a tad uneasy about this arrangement, and were delaying their decisions. To hurry them up, and show that she meant business, the Chevaliere published her first tell-all book, filled with secret correspondence she had received as a spy. She promised that more would follow.

France quickly acquiesced to her demands, and d'Eon became an overnight celebrity. Her book was incredibly popular, but it was the mystery surrounding her gender that really had the English people hooked. See, the Chevaliere continued to dress up in women's clothes, even after quitting the court of Empress Elizabeth. She maintained a sense of mystery about her gender, to the point where people made bets about whether or not she was a boy or a girl. d'Eon herself refused to say.

After fifteen years in England, France reached out an olive branch. d'Eon would be allowed to return home on the condition that she assume the role and appropriate clothing of her gender. the Chevaliere jumped on the opportunity, and went back to France.

However, the transition was difficult for her. She wanted to keep her dragoon's uniform as a symbol of political power, and to maintain the same amount of political influence that she had before. The French government wasn't too keen on this. Several times she was forceably dressed in female clothes, and her political opinions were consistently ignored. She was, essentially pushed to the side, and in 1785 she moved back to England.

d'Eon was able to live off her pension for a while, but in 1789 the French monarchy was abolished, and the Chevaliere was left without a source of income. To support herself, she gave swordsmanship exhibitions, wearing her Cross of St. Louis, and branding herself as an Amazon. The English people welcomed her back with open arms, but as the Chevaliere grew older she grew increasingly more isolated. When an injury made her stop fencing in 1796 she moved into a flat with another old woman, and rarely left her home after.

Image result for Chevalier d'eonAfter her death it was, of course, discovered that the Chevaliere possessed male genitalia. This news, of course shocked the world. Most people believed the Chevaliere to be female, and there had even been court cases that confirmed this, the most convincing argument being that the Chevaliere said she was female.

And there is a large amount of evidence saying that the Chevaliere truly identified as a woman, and that it wasn't a guise she adopted for social and diplomatic purposes. The Chevaliere experienced a religious awakening in her later life, and affirmed that not only did she believe herself to be a woman, but that God had told her she was a woman.

Historian's today waver about d'Eon's sexuality, but d'Eon knew d'Eon best. If she said she was a woman then she was a woman, and while today's gender politics are very different from gender politics of the past, the fact remains that d'Eon identified as a woman, and that identity should be respected.

Gender identity aside, d'Eon was an amazing woman. She was a talented and capable diplomat, and excellent writer, and a colorful person.

*A note on pronouns: since the Chevaliere maintained that she was a woman for most of her life, I have used feminine pronouns to refer to her here. No one would know the gender of the Chevaliere better than the Chevaliere herself, and on while the Chevaliere hasn't appeared to me in a dream saying that she prefers she/her pronouns, it is reasonable to assume that female pronouns are the appropriate pronouns to use when writing about her.

Chevalier d'Eon de Beaumont
d'Eon, the Fresh Face
Charles, chevalier d'Eon de Beaumont
The Incredible Chevalier d'Eon, Who Left France as a Male Spy, and Returned a Christian Woman
The Chevalier d'Eon

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Jews in the Caribbean

Jewish refugees being refused entrance to Cuba was briefly mentioned in 'The Cuba Libre Story', and it immediately sparked my interest. After all, whenever you think about the Holocaust and WWII, sunny tropical beaches isn't exactly the first thing that springs to mind. So when I started doing actual research on the topic, I was surprised to know that a number of Caribbean nations played host to (or wanted to play host to), refugees from war torn Europe.

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Refugees at Camp Gibraltar
Admittedly, upon further thought, it makes sense. There were a lot of refugees, and only a finite amount of space in England, Canada, and the US. Though it was miles away from anything they knew, large populations of Jews settled not only in the Caribbean, but in South America as well.

Now, keep in mind, this is, by no means, a comprehensive list, and there is no doubt that I'll be revisiting this topic in the future. But for now, let's talk about the US Virgin Islands, the Dominican Republic, and the (at the time) British West Indies.

In 1938 the US Virgin Islands looked at the situation in Europe, and did what any rational, human country would have done, they invited Jewish refugees into their territory.

Image result for us virgin islands mapIt would have been a pretty good deal for both parties. The Islands were sparsely populated and underdeveloped; the Jews were being killed. The Islands could offer the Jews shelter, and the Jews could settle, and help boost the economy, and aid in development. The Islands' government drafted a resolution, and submitted it to the US State Department for approval. This is when things started to go wrong.

See, in a leap of logic that supports my argument that people, as a species, never change, the officials at the State Department were worried that with the refugees would come spies, and that even if the refugees were anti-Hitler, a large number of them would still be pro-Germany. So Cordell Hull, Secretary of State at the time, sent a note to the Islands informing them that their resolution was in violation of several laws. This was, of course, total baloney.

Because not all of the Roosevelt Administration were anti-Semitic douchebags, the Department of Labor and the Department of the Interior started looking into the State Departments ruling. They found, and published a statement saying that the US Virgin Islands' resolution was completely compliant with existing laws, and, furthermore, would help the US reach its stated quota of Jewish refugees they needed to take in from Europe.

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Cordell Hull, Nobel Peace Prize winner,
and anti-semitic douchebag.
The State Department seemed reluctant to budge, so the Islands tried to negotiate. They conceded that their Islands could be a halfway point, a place where Jews could wait to be admitted to the mainland US. This was a more than reasonable compromise. The US would meet its quota, the Islands would get an economic boost, and the refugees could be kept under strict supervision. The State Department still didn't like this, but it wasn't technically illegal. So they embarked on a course of bureaucratic nonsense. The State Department and their buddies in the US Attorney's Office adopted a strategy of 'Delay and delay'. Every roadblock that could be put up was. The goal was to limit immigration into the US by making the process so lengthy that potential immigrants would either give up, or die before they could enter the US.

And, unfortunately, it worked. The Virgin Islands were never able to take in the refugees that they wanted to help, and hundreds of thousands of Jews died as a result.

The Dominican Republic (sometimes known as DR) was probably the most eager of any country to take in Jewish refugees, however, unlike the Virgin Islands, the republic's government's motives weren't noble. There were, in fact, motivated by Rafael Trujillo's (the dictator at the time) racism and need for some good PR. Motivations aside, the DR offered to take in some 100,000 Jewish refugees, and, in the end, took in about 4,000.

As mentioned, Rafael Trujillo had two goals in mind when he invited refugees to his shore. One, to try and make the world forget about his massacre of around 25,000 Haitians. Two, to try and lighten the skin color of the dark skinned Dominicans, and to try and 'Europeanize' the country. Trujillo hoped that the Jews would intermarry with the Dominicans, and produced lighter skinned children. Unfortunately, no one told him about that pesky little verse in Deuteronomy where Jews are forbidden to marry non-Jews.
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Sosua beach, looks a bit like a desktop background
that came as a preset for Windows XP, no?

So, to prepare for the arrivals of his hopefully hundreds of thousands of potential gene pool modifiers, Trujillo prepared the town of Sosua, a former banana plantation, which he had purchased a few years prior.

Sosua was about 70% jungle at the time, but it was good land for farming. One of the visa requirements for Jewish refugees coming to the DR was that they be willing to take up an agrarian lifestyle. There was an intensive screening process of all potential immigrants, and, in addition to their willingness to take up farming, candidates were also chosen for their youth, strength, and health.

It was difficult to transport refugees from Europe to the Caribbean. Jews could only make the crossing on Allied ships, and aforementioned ships were often needed to move troops and supplies. Add in the amount of Axis submarines floating around, and you've got a rough journey. Consequentially, only 500 families, or around 4,000 people were able to settle in the Dominican Republic.
And for a bunch of city slickers transported to a tropical island, told to do a job they didn't quite know how to do, they did pretty well. The Jews at Sosua resuscitated a struggling pig population, opened the first salami factory in the DR, and became a major producer of milk and butter. (to this day Sosua is the dairy capital of the Dominican Republic)

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Sosua synagogue
Very few of the refugees were content to stay on the island however, or even in Sosua. As I mentioned before, the Jews transplanted to Sosua were a bunch of city people. They came from Vienna and Berlin, two cities not exactly known for their agriculture or their tropical climate. Moving from the Old World to the sunny island of Hispaniola was enormous change, and, as might be imagined, may Jews just weren't quite down for that in the long term. Several families left for the capital city of Santo Domingo, and even more left for the United States, where the culture and climate were much more familiar. Out of the 500 families that came over from Europe, about 50 stayed in Sosua.

Today Sosua remains an enormous producer of dairy products, but there's very little of its Jewish population left. However, the Jewish history of the town still runs strong. There's a Jewish museum attached to the historic synagogue, and the Star of David is incorporated into the city seal. Trujillo's dream of a 'whiter' Dominican population was never realized, but about 4,000 souls were saved from dying horrible deaths at the hands of the Nazis, which, in my opinion, is a more than acceptable trade off.

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The Gibraltar Camp
The Gibraltar Camp, built on the Mona Estate just outside the capital city of Kingston in British owned Jamaica was initially supposed to house refugees from British colonies that were affected by the fighting--Gibraltar and Malta*. Along with the refugees came some 200-3,000** Dutch, Polish, Czech, and Luxembourgish Jews.

Out of all the refugee camps to end up in, the Gibraltar Camp was one of the best. The camp was, more or less, a functioning town. They had doctors, hairdressers, teachers, as well as a functioning police station, hospital, and synagogue. The refugees had access to books, newspapers, the radio, the camp even showed movies! It was, by all accounts, a cozy little place, but life wasn't as idyllic as you might think.

Despite the fact that they were well looked after, the refugees were still held in a camp. There were strict rules that ensured that they could only leave between the hours of 8 am and 10 pm, and guards recorded the comings and goings of every person. Additionally, the only option for work was inside the camp. In order to protect the local economy, the Jamaican government had placed a ban on Jews working or living outside of Camp Gibraltar, something that many refugees were unhappy with.

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Warning run in a Jamaican newspaper
Additionally, like the refugees in Sosua, there was an enormous culture shock. Admittedly, the refugees had come from Lisbon, which isn't exactly an arctic climate, but it's still quite different from Jamaica. Many of the Jewish refugees didn't speak the language, and the Jews that were already in Jamaica practiced a different form of Judaism than the refugees.***

And if that wasn't enough, with a new world came new diseases. In 1944 a large portion of the camp was hit with Dengue fever, a disease the refugees had no previous antibodies to fight. They were laid up with a fever and a horrible rash, then quarantined for six weeks. It was enough to put even the most gung ho of refugees off the island.

It isn't surprising that many of the refugees in Camp Gibraltar returned to Europe, or immigrated to America after the war. Most of the Gibraltars and the Maltese went back to their island/rock, and most of the Jews went to different places in South America. A very few stayed. This is a pattern that would replay itself over and over again with the Caribbean refugees.

The Jews who settled on the islands of Trinidad and Tobago have a very different story from the Jews who settled in Jamaica, and Sosua. In many ways the community of Jews in Trinidad mirror the Japanese in Hawaii and California. Many of the Jews in Trinidad came before the mass evacuations from Europe. A great deal came between 1936 and 1939, but even more were the descendants of people who had immigrated in the late 1800s, or during the Spanish Inquisition. Many of these people were citizens of Trinidad, and they had built up a flourishing local culture, however, when the war started, many of the Jews from Europe were detained in an internment camp, much like the Japanese-Americans.

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And if internment wasn't bad enough, the Jews were interned with many of the same people who wanted them dead. The Trinidadian government had decided that all 'enemy aliens' were to be interned, which was not just the Jews, but also German sailors and U boat crews.

Thankfully, the Jewish internees were released after a few months. However, they were still kept under strict rules. They couldn't leave their homes between 8:00 pm and 6:00 am, they couldn't own motor vehicles or bicycles, and they had to report to the police station at least once a day. Unsurprisingly, a lot of the Jews left.

However, following the end of the war Trinidad retained a much larger percentage of their Jewish Emigres than other islands. Admittedly, there was already a sizable population of Jews on the island when the immigrants started to come, but many Europeans stayed as well. At it's peak, the Jewish population in Trinidad and Tobago numbered around 700. Today there's less than 50 Jews on the islands. Most of the Jews who left the islands left because of a lack of educational and career opportunities, not because of culture shock, making the Trinidadian Jews unique among all the Jews that came to the Caribbean.
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*There actually weren't that many refugees from Malta. The Maltese government had sent a representative over to see if they liked Jamaica, and they didn't. The Maltese weren't too impressed with the climate, and they were even less impressed with the idea of letting people of color have authority over them. This unfortunate bit of racism kept a majority of Maltese out of Jamaica.

**Sources disagree on the exact number of Jews who took refuge in Jamaica. Miriam Stanton, who lived at the camp, reported 3,000 Dutch Jews, but other sources place the number as being much lower.

***The Jews who were already in Jamaica were Sephardic Jews, and the newcomers were Ashkenazi Jews. Sephardic Jews originate from Spain and the Mediterranean area, while Ashkenazi Jews come from Northern Europe. Many of the Sephardic Jews in Jamaica took refugee there following the Spanish Inquisition (I realize that that may be a bit unexpected). 

This article brought in part to you by my very best friend M. Kellogg. She's a genius in all things having to do with Judaism, and this article would not have been possible without her.


Friday, July 21, 2017

Damn, Girl(s)-Dahomey Amazons, the Fiercest Women This Side of the Mississippi

The African kingdom of Dahomey (today's Benin) is sometimes referred to as 'Black Sparta'. This is honestly a little insulting to the Dahomey, because the Spartans were Boy Scouts with peashooters in comparison to the fearsome armies of the Dahomey, especially the ferocious all-female units known as the Dahomey Amazons.

Modern Benin highlighted in red.
These Amazons were formed originally sometime during the late 1600s. They didn't start out as warriors, their initial purpose was to hunt elephants, but in the early 1700s the Dahomey King was so impressed by their fighting, that he enlisted the Amazons as his palace guard, from there they were assimilated into the regular army.

There was nothing 'regular' about the Amazons however. These ladies trained more strenuously than the men, and were required to undergo huge tests of strength and endurance. Part of their training required climbing thorn covered walls without showing pain, and fighting off masses of prisoners of war. They were fierce women, and they never ran away from a fight. Of course, a large part of this is due to the fact that Amazons who did try to run away were executed on the spot, but harsh desertion penalties aside, these women had a huge 'death before defeat' mentality. Their motto was literally 'Conquer or Die'.

One of the more grim parts of the training that all Dahomey solders underwent was 'desensitizing training'. This training was designed to help untested warriors get over their fear of killing people. Once a year prisoners of war were placed into baskets, and taken atop a high platform. Green recruits would then toss these prisoners off the edge of the platform. At the base of the platform was a group of angry Dahomeians ready to tear the prisoners apart.

Image result for dahomey amazonsAdditionally, the Amazons were committed to a life of celibacy. They were all, nominally, married to the King (much in the way that Catholic nuns are married to Jesus), but they were forbidden from having sex. This was because pregnancy prevented a woman from fighting, and the Dahomey Amazons were all about fighting. To further insure that these women refrained from pregnancy inducing activities, it meant instant death for any man to lay a hand on an Amazon. In fact, when an Amazon went out, she generally had a slave girl walking ahead of her with a bell. Whenever they heard the bell, men would draw off to the side of the road, and look the other way, just in case.

The Amazons came from all walks of life. Some of them were third tier wives of the King whom the king did not wish to sleep with. Some were women trying to escape a life of drudgery, and some were girls who's parents had deemed them 'difficult' and 'unsuitable for marriage'.

Like the mythical Greek Amazons, the Dahomey Amazons were known for their incredible fighting skills. And, as with all such amazing warriors, it's difficult to tell fact from fiction sometimes. However, the sheer number of 'myths' suggest that, whatever the truth, these women were pretty badass. Here is an incomplete list of some of the more incredible feats that have been attributed to them:
  • Tearing out a men's larynx's with their teeth
  • Literally ripping stockades apart
  • Wearing belts made of thorns
  • Defeating entire African nations.
  • Took on a group of 40 elephants. Not only did they survive, but they killed 3 of said elephants. 
One of my favorite, if a bit gruesome, stories about these ladies is how they would decapitate their dead enemies, then boil the flesh off the skull. After the skull had been defaced (literally), it would then be added to the massive pile of skulls that supported the king and queen's thrones. This may sound like a crazy story, but you can view these thrones in the historic Abomey Palace today.

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Throne of King Ghez. There are a lot fewer skulls. Also a Getty
Images watermark, because who can afford $175 for a picture?
(If you can afford that, and want to donate to this blog, feel
During the times that the Amazons fought, Dahomey underwent some massive expansion. They conquered all of Benin, and most of modern Nigeria. The Dahomey were fearless and a little cocky. They regularly took down nations much larger than themselves, but they took on too much when they messed with the French. 

See, in 1890 the French hadn't conquered the Dahomey, but they had made 'protectorates' of the Dahomey's neighbors, and so when the Dahomey Amazons when a-raiding, they stepped on the toes of the French. And by 'stepped on the toes' I mean that one Dahomey Amazon decapitated the governor of the city, and wrapped it in the French tricolor.

While the French admired the Dahomey as fighters, that sort of insult obviously couldn't stand, so the French hit the Dahomey with everything they had. Thought they fought bravely (and viciously. aforementioned larynx tearing happened in the engagements against the French), the French defeated the Dahomey, and most of the Amazons were killed.

Image result for dahomey amazonsThere were 50 Amazons who survived, and most of them are said to have joined Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. Most of them died in the early 1940s, but one woman, Nawi, lived until 1979. She lived well over a century, and was, probably, the last of the Amazons to die.

These women were vicious and ferocious. Their fighting tactics could make even the most desensitized of people squirm (which is why I haven't gone too in-depth), and if they lived today they'd almost certainly be categorized as war criminals. However, they are particularly notable because they were the first all female fighting regiment in all of documented history. They put the fear of God into the French (metaphorically) to the point that there was a specific addendum in the peace treaty that said that no Dahomey woman could ever pick up a weapon again.